Peter Betts: ‘We need to rebuild trust ahead of next climate summit’

The former lead climate negotiator for the UK and the EU discusses what is needed from the postponed COP26 climate summit
<p>Peter Betts, former lead climate negotiator for the UK and EU (Image: Chris Davy/China Dialogue)</p>

Peter Betts, former lead climate negotiator for the UK and EU (Image: Chris Davy/China Dialogue)

On 1 April the UK government and the UN made a widely anticipated announcement: that the critical climate conference scheduled for November 2020 in Glasgow would have to be postponed because of Covid-19. Postponement, and the wider effects of the pandemic, have set back the timetable for the effort to raise global ambition planned for the coming conference.

For six years, Peter Betts was the lead climate negotiator for the UK and the European Union, capping more than 20 years’ experience in climate change and environmental policy. As leader of the EU negotiations in Paris in 2015, he helped to drive the parties towards the historic Paris Agreement, which successfully established a universal framework to tackle climate change. What it did not do was deliver an action plan to meet its own targets: that was to be advanced this year, at COP26, when countries were to bring more ambitious plans to the table.

“Postponing COP26 is absolutely the right decision,” Peter Betts told China Dialogue. “It’s not just the risk of bringing in tens of thousands of people from all over the world to sit in closed rooms in Glasgow. Even if that had been possible it could not have been inclusive because the preparatory work would not have been done.”

The scale of the challenge

Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1994, the Parties to the Convention have come together in an annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to find ways to operationalise the agreed goal of limiting dangerous climate change. Arguments rage around who does what and who pays. Progress demands that nearly 200 countries with widely differing levels of prosperity and vulnerability, different political systems and interests agree on the means to achieve an unprecedentedly challenging set of objectives. The process is both driven by the understanding that failure would bring catastrophe and hindered by the complexity and scale of the effort required.

The COPs are vast – attended by up to 40,000 people who include political leaders, civil servants, negotiators, businesspeople and civil society actors. Months of preparatory work in the world’s capitals set the stage but achieving a meaningful outcome in the two weeks of negotiations at the conference remains a dauntingly complex proposition.

“There are 195 countries and at least 30 parallel streams going on,” Betts explained, “so as the lead negotiator you are trying to track all those – seeing what’s going on in all the rooms, getting reports from your frontline negotiators, trying to discern a pattern.”

Failing to monitor multiple conversations closely, he said, could allow a small issue to blow up and derail the negotiations. Keeping things on track demands an ability to maintain a strategic view of the objectives amid a constant barrage of diverse information.

“I spent half my time doing process,” he recalled. “You have hundreds of people doing technical negotiations, thinking that what matters is getting to the next trench. But what’s really important is to think about how to bring pressure to bear in the room.”

The delay playbook

Some of that pressure comes from external groups such as the NGOs, think tanks and reporters who follow the negotiations and who could sometimes be recruited in support of an argument. As the EU’s chief negotiator, Betts was not allowed to talk to the press, a constraint that did not apply to his Chinese counterpart, Su Wei, or other national negotiators. Betts remembers his Chinese counterparts as a formidable negotiating team.

“I used to think of Xie Zhenhua (formerly China’s most senior climate official) and Su Wei (China’s former lead negotiator) as playing good cop, bad cop,” he said. Xie Zhenhua would be beaming in the bilateral talks, friendly and extremely charming. Then in the negotiations Su Wei would play every procedural game in the book, like blocking things or suddenly re-opening deals that had been agreed.”

The Chinese team was not alone in deploying procedural tactics. Inside the negotiations, Betts explained, many negotiators use them to gain advantage or to block measures they disagree with.

“They do it because it’s much easier to mess up the procedure than to admit that you don’t want to make progress,” he said. “The result is that we spent huge amounts of time trying to frustrate these procedural devices. An example might be that one party says that they are committed to the agreement, but they insist that it must be fully transparent. That sounds fine, but what full transparency means is operating only in the plenary session with all the parties present. Negotiating everything on the screen, it means, of course, that nothing can happen.”

“Another trick is to say this must be a ‘party-owned text’. That is also a code. It means that instead of having the chairs put a compromise together, or produce a text that you can actually negotiate, you have to take all the countries’ submissions and stick them together in one document. The result is a 500-page document that is simply not negotiable.”

Reconciling diverse interests

To achieve a successful outcome, many competing interests must be traded or reconciled, including the sometimes-divergent interests of vulnerable, developing countries and their richer counterparts. As the negotiator for a set of developed countries, Betts was acutely aware of potential conflicts over finance. “Success requires the support of vulnerable and developing countries who might share some, but not all the interests of the forward-leaning developed economies like the EU. They might agree on mitigation, for example, but not on questions of money. You are constantly thinking about when to put concessions on the table, especially if you only have a limited amount to give,” he said.

In the closing stages of a COP, he said, the process becomes more focused and intense.

“Everybody knows that sooner or later you need a small room and a presidency or a chair’s proposal, simply because you cannot negotiate a deal of that complexity issue by issue or line by line with all parties.” But at the same time, it was important not to ignore the interests of those who were not in a room at any time: the French hosts worked hard to ensure that no party felt neglected or unhappy enough to block progress, and to bring compromise proposals back to all in the plenary.

The Paris conference had been well prepared over a two-year period by French diplomats, but the result was not guaranteed, and the COP was full of drama and tension. Then, almost as soon as the agreement was ratified, the many favourable conditions that had enabled the agreement began to change. Looking forward to COP26, Betts sees a very different set of conditions.

“Victory has many fathers,” Betts explained. “The French did a great job in Paris and they benefited from uniquely favourable geopolitics. The United States played a huge role, with John Kerry and President Obama both visiting China and Todd Stern playing a forensic role in the major economies’ forum. India had the solar alliance and I think we played a critical role putting the coalition with the vulnerable countries together. All these factors played a part.”

The ambition and trust gaps

But in 2016, Donald Trump was elected and announced that the US would leave the Paris Agreement. Not only is the US failing to deliver on its own commitments, but its capacity to mobilise others in favour of greater ambition is no longer available. Today there is more tension than harmony in global geopolitics and China has yet to demonstrate its potential for climate leadership.

Since 2015, global emissions have continued to rise, and in the five years since the Paris Agreement, the impacts of climate change that scientists have predicted – severe storms, fires, floods, typhoons – have increased in frequency and severity. The IPCC has warned that collectively we have just a decade left to bend the emissions curve down, if we are to achieve the Paris goals, underlining the urgent need for increased ambition.

Clearly there has been a huge loss of political momentum around climate, and that will have to be rebuilt somehow

Delivering that ambition remains the key objective of the postponed COP26, but the pandemic has brought the diplomatic preparatory work to a halt and Betts has no illusions about the scale of the task. There is a yawning gap, he points out, between current pledges and the reductions needed to reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global average temperature increases to well below 2C or even 1.5C.

“We are currently emitting around 55 Gt,” he said, sketching out a simple graph and referring to gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year. “Business as usual would take us to around 64 Gt. UNEP says that to be on track for well below 2 degrees, we should be at 41 Gt, and to be on track for 1.5 degrees we should be at 24 Gt. That leaves a gap of 30 Gt to close. The Paris commitments take us to about 54 Gt. Paris wasn’t nothing,” he said, “but it’s clearly not enough.”

“I think that the very best we could do in COP26 is maybe 5 or 6 Gt? Maybe I’m wrong and it’s 8? But it’s not 13 and it’s certainly not 30. And maybe half of that 5 or 6 could come from China.”

“If the EU goes to a 55% reduction from 40%,” he continues, “that would be about three quarters of a gigaton. Maybe you could get a gigaton out of India if they double down on renewable energy. China could contribute 2-3 by bringing forward its peaking date. But if China was prepared to be radical, we could do a lot more.”

The real question now, he said, is at what point leaders will have the space to focus on anything other than the pandemic. “Clearly there has been a huge loss of political momentum around climate, and that will have to be rebuilt somehow,” he said. “The delay might see a change in the US presidency and perhaps a chance to reset the US-China and the EU-China relationships. We shall need to rebuild trust, and to do that we shall need an honest reflection about what this crisis has meant, how to come out of it and how to ensure it does not happen again. We must use the extra time we now have to do that because in this situation, China becomes even more important. Without a serious step forward by China, it is difficult to see how we get to success in COP26.”